Florida Keys News
Wednesday, November 14, 2012
Attorneys, planning priorities of council

ISLAMORADA -- Members of the next Village Council say they expect to promptly take up the question of whether to replace the village's contracted legal team with an in-house attorney.

"I think that will be one of the first things we do," said Mayor Ken Philipson, who was reelected last week along with councilmen Ted Blackburn and Dave Purdo. Mike Forster and Deb Gillis were assured a seat on the board in August when they drew no election opponent.

The new council members also say that they'll quickly address the issue of streamlining permitting and easing red tape for residential and commercial building projects after their Nov. 29 swearing in.

The Coral Gables-based Weiss Serota law firm has handled the village's day-to-day legal work, as well as much of its litigation, since early 1998. But over the course of this fall's campaign, the question of whether to alter that arrangement was a predominant issue.

Purdo and Philipson both called for bringing in an in-house attorney to do the day-to-day work, while leaving Weiss Serota -- at least for now -- in place to handle litigation.

Weiss Serota partner Nina Boniske directs the firm's work on behalf of Islamorada.

Blackburn towed a less committal line during the campaign, saying he'd support holding a workshop to explore the costs and benefits, both financial and otherwise, of replacing Weiss Serota.

That's essentially Gillis' position, she said in an interview last week.

"I'm not sure I am in support of changing it from what I can tell. But I'm willing to listen," she said.

Forster, however, does want to hire an in-house attorney "and I'm not going to ask Nina for advice," he said, referencing a step Philipson took while considering the matter over the summer.

Difficulties in getting a village-issued building permit also emerged as a campaign issue, with some candidates, as well as Gillis and Forster, taking exception to what they regard as the strict manner in which the planners interpret the village code.

In interviews last week, members of the next council said they expected to immediately address ways to make permitting more efficient, and also to discuss what must be done to reduce the number of times the Planning Department deems a project out of compliance.

"I think we need to find out what the problem is, why it takes so long," Gillis said. "Is it the ordinances?"

Forster was especially blunt in his criticisms of the Planning Department.

"They always go to the most restrictive side of the law," he said. "The problem with that is, we're trying to build commerce, trying to build business. Why can't we go to the most lenient side of the law?"

He placed responsibility on Village Manager Ed Koconis, and said he plans to call on Koconis to give up his secondary hat as planning director, which he retained when he was promoted two years ago.

Forster also said he'll call to empanel a six-week-long task force made up of general contractors and other people who have been frustrated with the Planning Department. The task force would come back with recommendations on streamlining permitting and permit approvals.

Koconis last week defended his management of the Planning Department, saying that staff is already operating under the direction that if there is a way to legally approve a permit, that is what they should do.

But he added that the village has to either follow its laws or change them.

"We are and have always been willing to look at any regulations that have to be amended," he said.

Though all the members of the next council said they are ready to engage in a discussion over the permitting issue, not all of them are taking the same tact as Forster.

Blackburn said it's important to remember that the village code is there to protect the environment and maintain village character.

"I don't want them to be lenient. I want them to be fair," he said.

He added that he'd like the review of village permitting procedures to be a part of a bigger review process of all the village code to see what works and what should be changed.


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